Sleep to Lead — Improving Cognitive Function And Performance

Silvia Damiano
3 min read

Sleep. For so many, it’s an elusive dream. With the constant demands for more and more coming from every direction, people may compensate by taking less time for sleep. But this sleep-deprived state isn’t good for anyone and likely contributes to short and long-term health risks.

Stop Yawning And Take A Hard Look At Your Sleep Habits

While producing the Make Me A Leader film, I was delighted to chat with Dr. Carmel Harrington, who has a Ph.D. in Sleep Medicine from Sydney University. Dr. Harrington has nearly 20 years of experience working in the world of sleep, and she is an internationally recognised sleep expert.

In our discussion, Dr. Harrington shared her fascinating knowledge about what really goes on when we sleep. We experience various states of sleep, including REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM (NREM) sleep. During REM sleep, our brains are incredibly active. This is the time period in which we dream, and the brain does housekeeping that it can’t do when we are awake.

During slow wave sleep, NREM sleep, our brains get a respite and experience a slow-down. However, our bodies are busy, getting ready to take on another day. Leaders require good sleep for many reasons, including allowing our prefrontal cortex time to rest. When you are in a sleep-deprived state, your prefrontal cortex will not ignite, and you will essentially be not as smart. It’s easy to see how this can be detrimental to your leadership skills!

You need to have enough sleep so that when you wake, you can meet not only the challenges but the joys of the day.

Dr. Carmel Harrington

It’s not enough to sleep so that you can ‘get through’ the next day. You need to sleep so that your brain and body are ready to face the challenges of the day, certainly. But, you also want to be rested so that you can enjoy all the lovely things in your life.

Facts About Sleep That You Need To Know

  1. What is normal sleep?
    Each night, we go through a natural progression of the various stages of sleep. This cycle is repeated every 90-110 minutes or so. Deep sleep usually occurs during the first third of your rest time and accounts for about 20% of your total sleep time. REM sleep takes over during the last third of sleep, taking up to 25% of your sleep time. It’s normal to be awake for short periods during the night.
  2. Why does sleep matter so much anyway?
    We need sleep, as much as we need oxygen, water or food. It is necessary to maintain good health, both in the short-term and the long-term. If you don’t get enough sleep in the short term, you are more likely to catch infections such as the flu or cold. As far as long term, the effects can be dramatic, leading to hypertension, obesity, diabetes and a chance to die younger than well-slept people. You can also experience poor mental health, and disorders such as anxiety and depression.
  3. How much sleep should I be getting?
    Babies need LOTS of sleep, as much as 16 or more hours a day. As we get older, this sleep requirement does decrease, but there is still a minimum level needed for optimum function! Teenage children typically need 9 or 10 hours, and adults usually need 7-9 hours. However, this isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ kind of thing. You may need more or less, depending on your own unique physiology and brain. Of course, your genetics play a role, and no matter how hard you try, you’ll never be able to trick your DNA!

What If You Just Can’t Sleep, Or You Can’t Stay Asleep?

Fortunately, thanks to the efforts of researchers such as Dr. Harrington, there are many options for you if you have difficulties sleeping. There are over 70 sleep disorders that can potentially keep you from getting your beauty rest, and you shouldn’t hesitate to consult your doctor if you think your sleep is being impaired.

There are periods during your life when you may face sleep-deprivation. Infants, puppies, caring for family members and late-night deadlines can disrupt your sleep, or even make it impossible! However, these periods of time are typically transient and short-lived, and you still have options to try and get as much rest as possible. Please don’t be afraid to reach out to family, friends or medical personnel if you face long periods of sleep deprivation.

As a leader, you are expected to function at your optimum level. You need good sleep to properly function. If you are tired, you will be more likely to snap at others, to be short-tempered, and generally unpleasant. This type of behaviour doesn’t inspire creativity and innovation. So, take a hard look at your bed and think about how much sleep you genuinely are getting each night.

Sleep information from

Originally posted on: 31 July 2018
Last updated on: 18 February 2024
Silvia Damiano

Silvia Damiano

Founder & CEO
About my Brain Institute

Scientist, educator, author, speaker, coach, award-winning leadership specialist, filmmaker and creator of the i4 Neuroleader Model & Methodology.

Silvia's scientific background and curiosity about the human brain led her to a decade long journey of research into optimal brain functioning and the application of neuroscience in leadership and daily life. Her past and current roles have uniquely prepared her for the current undertaking, that of leadership activist & change agent.

Silvia Damiano founded The About my Brain Institute in 2009, with the purpose of democratising leadership & neuroscience. She has a passionately held belief, that leaders in our 21st century global economy and their organisations must radically change long-held ideas of what constitutes effective leadership

In her ground-breaking books ‘Leadership is Upside Down’, ‘Brain-Friendly Leadership’ and the 2018 documentary ‘Make Me A Leader’, Silvia provides both compelling evidence and explores the importance of leadership in our personal and professional lives and what it takes to develop the human behind the leader.

Silvia has worked in different countries, across many industries, helping teams and organisations improve business performance. Silvia’s clients have described her as a passionate, dynamic, a highly experienced speaker and master facilitator on the topics of Emotional Intelligence, Cultural Change, Neuroleadership & Engagement.

Silvia is passionate about leaving a legacy of well-rounded leaders who can act and decide in a way that better serves humanity. Her clients include Microsoft, Australian Stock Exchange, NSW Government, VISA, Fuji Xerox and Manpower amongst many other global companies.

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